Big Daddy Don Garlits, also known as the Swamp Rat for his tire-burning emergence from central Florida in the late '50s, has reigned as King of the Hot Rodders for nearly three decades. Now, at 54, he is drag racing faster than ever in a sport that seems to demand the reflexes, and the fearlessness, of youth. It also helps if one possesses a healthy measure of rebelliousness.
In claiming the National Hot Rod Association's Top Fuel Dragster World Championship last year, Garlits won 6 of 13 "national" events, more victories in a single season than any Top Fuel driver in history. His closest competitor for the points title, Joe Amato, was 2,204 points behind him. Along the way Garlits also raised the speed record for the standing-start quarter mile to 268.01 mph—and made the next four fastest runs in the annals of drag racing.
This year he has hardly slackened the pace. So far Garlits has won four more nationals, and with three events remaining on the NHRA schedule, he has a 1,554-point lead toward a successful defense of his crown. His most notable '86 win came at Indianapolis Raceway Park on Sept. 1 at the 32nd annual U.S. Nationals, drag racing's grandest event, with a purse exceeding $1 million. One hundred and thirty-five thousand people watched Big Daddy win his eighth Indy, his third in a row.
It takes more than a foot like an anvil to win drag races, especially in the wide-open Top Fuel class, where almost any innovation is legal and those that aren't only aren't if you're caught. Originality counts, too, and no one—and this is incontestable—gets more points for originality, both mechanical and personal, than Big Daddy.
September 28, 1986
Innovative urges run in Garlits's blood. Big Daddy's daddy was a Westing-house engineer who in the early '20s collaborated on the invention of the electric fan and the electric iron. Soon after that, however, Edward Garlits moved from Pittsburgh to El Paso for his health, and nutrition became the elder Garlits's religion—almost literally, because he also became an atheist. Eventually, Edward moved back East to New Jersey, where he opened a health food store and restaurant and developed a reputation as a nutritionist-healer. He also divorced his wife to marry Helen Lorenz, a 16-year-old who worked in his store; wore his hair long; and advocated nudism, none of which sat well with the late '20s New Jersey Establishment. Eventually, Edward was run out of the state by a judge who decided that Garlits's nutritional advice constituted practicing medicine without a license. So at 38, with an ex-wife and three children behind him, Edward Garlits and his new wife moved to Florida, where he bought an orange grove.
In the spring of '32, a couple of months after Donald Garlits—Little Baby Big Daddy—was born, the Depression sank the bank that held the family's savings. That same spring an invasion of fruit flies polished off the orange grove. Slowly, the Garlits family bounced back by truck farming. But when Don was 10 the elder Garlits beat up both his son and his wife, so Helen had her husband arrested and divorced him. Edward Garlits died in 1966 after a drunk driver plowed into his car. "He was light-years ahead of his time," says Big Daddy.
Garlits is very much his father's son, although not in his domestic life. Don and Pat, his wife of 33 years, live with two spirited Yorkshire terriers and three Doberman pinschers on 16 acres just south of Ocala, Fla., not far from where Big Daddy was born. One of their daughters is married, the other is away at college. Separating the Garlits's house—designed by the Garlitses—from the rumble of I-75 is the Big Daddy Don Garlits Museum of Drag Racing, opened in 1984. It contains 55 cars that hold a place in hot-rodding history, as well as numerous personal mementos the King of the Dragsters has deigned worthy of inclusion. Among them: Big Daddy's boyhood collection of marbles and his Boy Scout badges. Last year the museum had 50,000 visitors, establishing it as a Florida tourist attraction right up there with the alligator farms and monkey jungles.
Among the souvenirs for sale at the museum are two paperbacks: the autobiographical Big Daddy, by Garlits and Brock Yates; and Close Calls, a 24-chapter chronology of Garlits's major encounters with calamity. "The close calls are more my story than the victories," says Garlits, whose current dragster, the radical Swamp Rat 30, has a bubble canopy and bears the silver sticker SONS OF DANGER in dripping-blood calligraphy.
If Garlits were a cat with nine lives he would have used up the majority of them. The pattern was set when he was six weeks old and Edward rescued his son from a burning crib in their burning house. Fire would touch Don again in 1959, when the supercharger on Swamp Rat 1 exploded in his face. The first doctor to see him wanted to amputate one of his badly burned hands. A second doctor, who while serving in Korea had specialized in repairing soldiers charred in their burning tanks, saved Garlits's hands by submerging them in a saline solution for five weeks. "It was like watching St. Augustine grass grow, the way the skin came back," says Garlits. He ranks that as his closest call.
Garlits says his second-worst injury was the one in 1970 when an experimental transmission in Swamp Rat 13 exploded during a race and took off part of his right foot. An ambulance attendant then compounded the damage by slamming the door on the mangled foot.
On another occasion, in a Houston parking lot, when he was working under his truck, the jack slipped and the truck pinned his head to the pavement—Garlits can still recall hearing the crunch—resulting in a concussion. And then there was that broken back when his dragster's parachute failed to open and the car landed on a railroad track beyond the end of the strip. And the ruptured bladder caused by the sudden jerk of the seat-belts when the chute did open another time; that injury led to uremic poisoning a few hundred miles later.
The litany of hairbreadth escapes goes on, including his near drowning when a snapped axle threw his tow truck into a canal, and a highway flip when he and Pat were creamed from behind by a drunk driver. By now you would think Big Daddy would shun cars—and race cars in particular—but his love for fast machines is as compelling as ever.
Garlits's first rod was a '40 Ford convertible. He stuffed a big Cadillac V-8 under the hood, painted the body metallic maroon and was doing just fine when along came an 18-year-old girl from Kentucky named Pat Bieger. You knew it was love when Garlits sold the hot ragtop and bought a standard '50 Ford sedan. He got a job at the American Can Company. He took up bowling. He even learned to dance.
Don and Pat got married within a year. And then one Sunday they were out for a drive and "inadvertently" passed the Lake Wales Drag Strip. Uh-huh. The couple pulled in, "intending only to watch." Right. By the end of the day Big Daddy had won his first trophy. "It was just a little eight-inch plastic thing with a gold angel standing on the top of it," he says. "But I thought I'd won the whole world."
That would come soon enough.
Garlits's first record-setting dragster was the seminal Swamp Rat 1, which carried him to 176.4 mph in 1957. The secret to that machine's velocity was its fat fuel lines—more fuel! more speed!—concealed from copycat competitors by the frame rails. Seven years later he was the first driver to break 200, in Swamp Rat 6, a "slingshot" car in which the driver was hung out behind the rear axle, his legs straddling the differential housing. In 1971, from his hospital bed, where he ended up after that explosion that had claimed part of his foot, Garlits designed Swamp Rat 14; it was rear-engined to better protect the driver, and it revolutionized the sport. Swamp Rat 22 carried Big Daddy through the 250-mph barrier in 1975. Along the way, Garlits developed the fire-resistant driving suit—more gas! more speed! more danger!—an "aluminized spacesuit-looking thing." But it was fitting that Big Daddy looked as if he came from outer space, because many of his rivals already figured that was the case.
Over the years and through the stories, some of Garlits's original thinking has seemed to teeter on the brink of madness. He has always been smart; his father taught him to read and write before he started school. Today his library, much of it handed down from his father, includes a large section on the supernatural. "I'm into the flying saucers deal," he says. "You know, it's an ego trip and a half to think that life on earth is all there is in the universe."
He's also into Star Trek, Albert Einstein (a photo of Big Thinker sits on a shelf in Big Daddy's museum office over the inscription "Imagination is more important than knowledge") and economics—Big Daddy's frugality is legend on the drag-racing circuit. On a table in the library rests At Dawn We Slept: The Untold Story of Pearl Harbor, while on a desk in the living room lies Total Recall, a how-to book on photographic memory. Nearby is a tabloid exclaiming DRUNKEN MORTICIAN CREMATES SLEEPING JANITOR BY MISTAKE. Big Daddy is not an easy man to pigeonhole.
And, of course, there's his very orthodox belief in God. According to Garlits, the GOD IS LOVE painted inside a big crucifix on the fuselage of his dragster has cost him millions, because he has had to turn down sponsorship offers that were contingent on his playing down the religious message, which he will not do. Nor will Garlits accept sponsorship from beer or tobacco companies. He takes Big Daddyhood very seriously. (By the way, the name, coined by a track announcer in 1962, is a registered trademark.)
The idea of displaying the cross on his dragster came to Garlits one night in 1978 after he had just completed building Swamp Rat 24. "I was looking at it, and all of a sudden I just envisioned a cross on the cowl," he says. He decided it would be a good way to give God recognition for all the times He had spared Big Daddy—"Links of a supernatural chain," he says. In two years of campaigning Swamp Rat 24, Garlits won 24 of 30 events, which makes it the most successful Fueler in history.
The keystone to Garlits's longevity and success may be his phenomenal energy. In his high school yearbook Garlits wrote that he wanted to be a greyhound, because all he would have to do is eat, sleep and chase rabbits. The metaphor fits. He once raced in Tennessee on a Sunday, towed nonstop back to his shop in Florida, spent 72 straight hours rebuilding the car, then drove nonstop to Indiana for another race. Such a pace has been common for 30 years.
The Old Man, yet one more pitside nickname, looks anything but worn out. His gray hair and reading glasses might give him away, but the body is still a wiry 5'9½" and 155 pounds, and there's a touch of mischief in his laugh, which comes without warning.
But then those deep brown eyes will drill into something, and the single-minded concentration begins. It most frequently occurs when he and Herb Parks, his crew chief, labor over the engine of his car. Frequently, an engine has to be torn down and rebuilt in the 45 minutes between rounds of racing. During such times the two work smoothly, and for the most part without conversation, like deft surgeons over a patient.
This year Garlits moved into another universe from his rivals with the introduction of Swamp Rat 30. It is a striking vehicle, outrageously original in design. The 27½-foot-long car looks like a black arrow ready to be propelled by the howling 3,000-horsepower engine mounted behind the driver's ears. Like a jet fighter, the cockpit is encased by a Lexan canopy—RAT UNDER GLASS reads a sticker on the bubble. Up front are tiny 13-inch wheels, just 26 inches apart and covered by an aerodynamic cowling. This small and slippery front end is the secret to Swamp Rat 30's speed.
Which the new Rat showed from the day Big Daddy rolled it out last March, at the NHRA Gatornationals in Gainesville, Fla. On its first run the dragster went 268.01, a whisker under Amato's record of 269.46. But there was a problem: The front wheels were fitted not with tires but with skinny Kevlar industrial machine belts. (Fan belts for tires, at 268 miles an hour. Now that's original. Now that's Big Daddy.) The problem was, the belts flew off their rims as the dragster sped through the timing lights. Garlits popped the parachute and slowed to a stop on sparking aluminum rims. It happened again on the next run, and the next.
The fact that the NHRA allowed Garlits to continue running with his fan-belt front tires is one indication of the widespread regard for Big Daddy's tinkering talent. It might also be an indication of how thoroughly Garlits has intimidated the NHRA. He doesn't psych out just the other drivers—although he is a master at winning races before the cars even come to the line—he psychs out whole sanctioning organizations. Big Daddy and the NHRA have a long history of run-ins. The tone of the relationship was set in 1960 when, after winning a major NHRA meet, Garlits stomped his trophy into the dragstrip. He wanted to make it clear that he was still mad that the officials had disallowed one of his early runs because Garlits made a U-turn on the track rather than drive all the way to the return road at the end of the strip. It makes you wonder what Garlits would have done to show his displeasure had the officials disqualified him.
Even though he came riding back on his wheel rims after almost every qualifying and elimination run last March in Gainesville, Garlits and Swamp Rat 30 easily made it to the semifinal round, where they faced former NFL quarterback Dan Pastorini and his black-painted dragster, Quarterback Sneak. At the starting line the track announcer asked Garlits, "Well, Big Daddy, are you going for the 270 barrier this run?"
"No way" replied Garlits. "This baby's runnin' on full life-support."
When the green light flashed, the earth shook, and the two black rails were blown out of the billowing smoke. In about the amount of time it takes you to read this sentence, they had both accelerated to more than 250 miles per hour. The big scoreboard at the end of the strip proclaimed Garlits the winner with an elapsed time (ET) of 5.409 seconds. Then his speed flashed in lights: 272.56 mph. Pandemonium poured down from the grandstands. Big Daddy had broken yet another barrier.
"Now that we have the museum established, Don's racing stronger and harder and faster than he ever has," says Pat, who has worried about him for her entire adult life. "That's the thing that scares me—with these speeds and experimentation, he's open to it now."
"I'm playin' Chuck Yeager here," Garlits says with that grin. "Got a fan letter the other day addressed 'Attention: Chief Test Pilot.' "
He likes the ring of it. And at the NHRA Summernationals in English-town, N.J., on July 12, he was eliminated after seemingly taking the role of test pilot literally.
Garlits had solved the problem with the front wheels by abandoning the belts and switching to real tires—13-inch airplane tires on wheels he had designed himself. In qualifying, Swamp Rat 30 had gone 271.08 with an ET of 5.40 and backed that up on Friday night—under the lights—with a 270.59 in 5.343, the lowest ET run in drag history. In order for either an ET or a speed record to be official, NHRA rules require that it be followed by a run within 1% of the new mark; thanks to Garlits's run in qualifying, the 271.08 officially now stands as the NHRA's top speed mark. But for the ET to also become an official record, Garlits would have to back it up on Saturday.
"Off the line, the car picked the front wheels up just a little bit," Garlits recently recalled of that record try in July. "I kept my foot in it since it was still going straight, but the wheels kept coming up. By the time I recognized it and lifted, it was too late—the front end was maybe at an attitude of 30 degrees. There was already too much air under the body, and it just lifted everything straight up, like some rocket. The rear wheels took off three feet in the air. It was wild. When that thing stood up, it looked like some sort of black monument. The nose was 30 feet high. They said they could see it from the parking lot behind the grandstands."
Then came the most original—not to mention creative—U-turn of all time.
"It dropped back down on the rear wing—it was still going forward at a couple hundred miles an hour—and I braced myself for a big crash by jamming my feet down on the floorboards. But I didn't get my foot off the throttle, so it was still running wide open."
Swamp Rat 30 came back down on one rear tire, which caused the car to pivot and slam back down on the track facing the other direction, neatly and spectacularly. Now it was going nearly 200 miles an hour backward. Garlits's foot was still planted on the throttle, driving 3,000 horsepower in the opposite direction from the way the car was actually moving.
"I was disoriented by now," he continued. "I know I'm going backward and I know I'm going real fast, and I'm waiting to hit something—a fence, a guardrail, a tree, a telephone pole, something. But it was stopping...so fast. I didn't know what the heck was going on. I couldn't tell anything because I was in the center of nothing but noise and smoke. I was doing a giant burnout going backward! There are these two great big burnout marks for 300 feet. When the car stopped, my foot was still completely on the throttle. So then it took off forward again, and here comes my car back to the starting line, under full power. They were panicked down there, let me tell you."
As the car came out of the smoke, Big Daddy finally figured out which way he was headed, and he braked to a stop. The first thing he noticed—and couldn't believe—was that he was in one piece. Neither could the crowd, which watched in awed silence as Garlits climbed out of Swamp Rat 30. Big Daddy, now elated, threw his hands up, and to appreciate the roar that followed, you had to be there. Big Daddy had done it again. Maybe there would be no ET record to go into the books that day, but in the next edition of Close Calls, look for a 25th chapter.